‘On The Line’ pipes up about Enbridge

Public participation has been an essential component in environmental assessments in Canada since the inception of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in 1995 (CEAA 2011). However, the system is far from perfect and more work must be done to improve upon methods employed to ensure fair and open participation (Sinclair and Diduck 2001; Noble 2010). Filmmaker Frank Wolf has come up with a novel approach to informing and engaging the public in a Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) project. He and friend Todd McGowan embarked upon a self-propelled, 2400 km voyage along the proposed route for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, filming the entire experience (Wolf 2010). The course of the pipeline is shown below in red, along with the route to be taken by super tankers, which would transport the unrefined bitumen to Asia.

This documentary features numerous testimonials on the proposed pipeline from a variety of perspectives. Many of these interviews are very touching, for example the scene with Tony Harris, a fishing guide who worries that an oil spill would destroy his beloved steelhead fishery and his livelihood. He explains that “Oil is not life-sustaining, but water certainly is,” (Wolf 2010). There seems to be much consensus along the pipeline route that an oil spill is not a risk, but an inevitability. This may be due in part to the terrible track record of the company bidding to build the pipe, Enbridge, which is highlighted in the film. This company was responsible for 713 spills in the decade leading up to the documentary, totaling 21.3 million litres of oil (Lemphers 2010). The MP for Skeena-Bulkley, Nathan Cullen, goes so far as to assert that Enbridge’s “credibility is virtually zero,” (Wolf 2010). He stresses that people will not stop fighting for their land and their rights, a sentiment echoed by Pete Erickson of the Nak’Azdli Band in Fort St James and many others in the film.

On The Line briefly explores the endeavors of the Joint Review Panel occurring in Kitimat, the public participation component of the ongoing environmental assessment. Many people expressed concern that “the NEB [National Energy Board] is set up to approve this project, flat-out, […] it’s a farce that this is somehow a legitimate process – it’s not,” (Wolf 2010). This presupposes an open process in which the concerns of the public are taken into account in a meaningful manner, and illustrates the need for a larger role to be played by the public in decisions that affect them.

Frank and Todd finish their journey in the water off the coast of BC, where the super tankers would navigate through shallow waters and around hairpin turns to bring the raw bitumen from the tar sands to Asia. Ian McAllister, founder of the not-for-profit organization Pacific Wild, compares the geography of coastal BC to that of Prince William Sound, Alaska. He concludes that navigating the huge vessels from BC will be considerably more difficult that off the coast of Alaska, and predicts that there will be a spill within the first decade of operations. Bruce Hill of the Headwater Initiative explains that both the coast of Alaska and that of BC are particularly vulnerable to the effects of oil spills due to their coastal structure (Wolf 2010). This comparison with Alaska has not been explored in any depth in the Joint Review Panel (CEAA 2012), again raising questions as to how rigorous the assessment process really is.

The concerns expressed in this documentary regarding the role of the public in environmental assessments, and in making decisions which will affect their lives, are very real. The moving testimonials shed light on the more emotional side of this widely disputed issue, providing information and entertainment simultaneously. While such a significant undertaking as this documentary isn’t feasible for every environmental assessment, projects such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline are sufficiently large to warrant this extra attention. The government could learn a lot from the attention to detail and inclusive methods employed by the filmmaker Frank Wolf.


Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). 2011. About the Agency. CEAA. Accessed March 15, 2012 from http://www.ceaa.gc.ca/default.asp?lang =En&n=0046B0B2-1.

Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA). 2012. Enbridge Northern Gateway project joint review panel. CEAA. Accessed March 15, 2012 from http://gatewaypanel.review-examen.gc.ca/clf-nsi/hm-eng.html

Lemphers, N. 2010. Pipeline to nowhere? Uncertainty and unanswered questions about the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. The Pembina Institute. Accessed March 13, 2012 from http://www.pembina.org/oil-sands

Noble, B.F. 2010. Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: Guide to Principles and Practice (2nd edition). Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Sinclair, A.J., and Diduck, A.P. (2001). Public involvement in EA in Canada: a transformative learning perspective. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 21, 113-136.

Wolf, F. (director). 2010. On The Line. Perfs. Todd McGowan and Frank Wolf. DVD, Gravywolf Films.


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